Hats; History and Significance

If you take the time to look it up, you’ll find there are more than seventy different kinds of hats, from the Australian Akubra, though Kolpiks and Mortarboards, to the clerical skullcap called a Zuchetto.
Shoes are all basically the same shape, and pants, coats, certainly gloves and scarves.  But hats are distinctive, unique to the occasion, specialized.  You might mistake a slipper for a sandal, but never a fedora for a fez, or a boater for a beret.  A good hat can function like a global positioning satellite; a toque puts you behind a stove, a sombrero places you south of the border, and a bucket hat means you are probably on a remote island with the skipper, the Professor and Mary Ann.  It will also define you, to a degree.  You can’t be silly in a top hat, and you won’t be taken seriously if you are wearing a pork pie.
Some hats are just a convention, like a baseball cap, some are to keep your head warm, like one of those coonskin hats that Daniel Boone used to wear, and some are purely ceremonial, like the bearskin helmets worn by the guards at Buckingham Palace.  But many are multi-purpose, so I guess if you wear a coonskin helmet with a peak and a Yankee logo, you have all the bases covered, so to speak.  Incredibly, there are many places in the world where you can wear something like that and not even be noticed.  In New Orleans at Mardi Gras, for example, you would be considered conservatively dressed, and are in danger of being elected to some influential municipal office.
Babies wear skullcaps to keep heat from radiating out of their hairless little skulls.  Old men wear hats to keep heat from radiating out of their hairless little skulls.  In between, both in time and style, almost anything is possible.
Some group of ‘ologists’, either scientologists or paleontologists, figured out that the human race started out in Africa, where it’s hot.  So it’s a safe bet that hats were originally to keep the sun off a person’s head. The first hat was probably a big leaf, or maybe a big ol’ mastodon chip.  This is probably the era when shampoo was invented too.  And that time worn expression, ‘eewwwwwww!’
Next in the sequence, considering the natural tendency of Homo sapiens to murder, rape and plunder, especially if the weather is nice, was the development of helmets.  First came leather, which wasn’t much help against, say, a rock, and then bronze in the bronze age, and iron in the, um, iron age.  Helmets have also been made, at various times, from wood in the wood age, sheet music in the jazz age, and recycled keyboards in the information age.
(Now that I think about it, maybe it was cardiologists that figured out the ‘out of Africa’ theory.)
Anyway, helmets have been all the rage at certain points of history (to download a fifty page, small-font list of all wars since recorded history began, go to http://www.youcantbeserious.com).  It is a sad commentary that the advancement of helmet technology has closely paralleled the advancement of killing, maiming and making-the world-safe-for-whatever-happens-to-be-the-current-ideology technology.  I have a disturbing mental picture of some medieval general down on one knee telling his king “Sire, we have a helmet gap.”
But that’s helmets. Hats, I hope, represent a kinder, gentler side of headwear.  In our slightly less threatening era, hats are often tipped for style or for ceremony.
(Maybe it was actually a meteorologist that first worked out the ‘out of Africa’ theory. I’m SURE it wasn’t a proctologist.  I’m pretty sure of that.)
Style, as we know it, developed slowly as the dark ages got light, and then colorful.  Through those centuries, trade developed with the Orient and with the new world, and by the time of the French Revolution, women could afford hats big enough to function as tree houses for small children.  Some even had rope swings.  Men’s hats in those days turned a corner too, or actually turned into a corner; a tri-corner.  Patriots and summer soldiers wore those three corner hats that were supposed to direct rain off the wearer’s head.  They also came in darn handy when you wanted to rack your pool balls for a rousing game of snooker.
In the nineteenth century women’s hats morphed into bonnets, and men’s hats matured into the kind of headgear we are accustomed to in this century.  Well, except for the sixties, when the term “head gear” took on a meaning wholly unrelated to hats.
We got top hats in the nineteenth century, perfect for politicians to talk through, old horses to wear, and Fred Astaire to sing about.  And luckily for us, bowlers came along just in time for Laurel and Hardy to get theirs mixed up.
And then there was the twentieth century.  Many of us still remember the twentieth century, despite all efforts to blot it from memory.  The post WWII years gave us perhaps the greatest development in the history of hats, the fedora.  It wasn’t for warmth or protection, but purely for style.  And it didn’t slavishly follow the shape of the head, but enhanced it.  What Babe Ruth did for home runs, what Michelangelo did for marble, a fedora could do for a head.  The roundish, but not quite round, brim; the pointed but not quite pointy, peak; and the indented, and quite indented top, bespoke casual creativity.  It sang a tune of optimism, or mumbled in the background like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. It could be formal when worn straight, or jaunty when worn with a tilt, or quizzical when pushed back.  Humphrey Bogart could say more with his hat than FDR could say in a fireside chat.  Spencer Tracy’s hat was once nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  John Wayne’s hat had a horse of its own.  Without fedora’s, film noir would be film nowhere.  Indiana Jones’ hat doesn’t even require a mention.  It stands alone.
But hat wear has declined, both in frequency and quality.  Instead of real hats, we now have caps.  Baseball-type caps are everywhere, worn by both men and women, and look sort of like the top third of Daffy Duck’s head.  Caps are worn with curved brims or straight brims, frontwards or backwards, with or without a logo, new or frayed.  Curiously,  it doesn’t seem to matter. They all look alike.  A cap is to a hat what cheese is to cheesecake, what ham is to a ham radio, what a radio is to a radiologist.  Kind of similar, kind of within the species, but a poor, mewling substitute.  If a politician were to toss his cap into the ring, both the donkeys and elephants would laugh.  If they pass the cap at your next revival meeting it’s liable to come back empty, just for spite.  If Doctor Seuss wrote “The Cat in the Cap”, it would never have gotten published, and he would still be plain old Theodore Geisel.  Caps just don’t, and never will, pump out that ‘je ne sais quois’.  (‘Je ne sais quois’ is French for ‘I don’t know what’.  That’s not to say that I don’t know what its French for.  I know what its French for, and its ‘I don’t know what’.  So what I’m saying, in French, is that caps don’t have that ‘I don’t know what’ quality.  Actually, I think you need to be an etymologist to understand what ‘je ne sais quois’ means, although I’m pretty sure it was NOT an etymologist that developed the ‘Out of Africa’ theory).
But whatever it is that the French don’t know, caps don’t have it.
This essay hasn’t been just about hats, but also, and perhaps more so, about style. And style is sadly lacking in our fast, shiny, shallow, modern world.  I am hopeful that hats will make a comeback; that the next giveaway at Yankee stadium is a blue fedora without a Yankee logo; that men will recall the flourish of tipping a hat to a lady.  To paraphrase Hippocrates, and who can resist doing that, ‘Life is short, style is forever’.  Sadly, if Hippocrates ever said anything interesting about hats, no one took the time to write it down.
Big Fat Hat Facts 
In some cultures, hats are considered an art form.  In fact, Vincent Van Gogh once did a painting called “Starry, Starry Hat”, but in a raging fit of absinthe-fueled sanity, destroyed it.
Curious George’s best friend was The Man In The Yellow Hat.  There has never been an explanation of why he wore a yellow hat, or indeed, chose to live in Manhattan with a monkey.  Stonehenge, crop circles, and The Man With The Yellow Hat all remain unexplained to this very day.
Stetson’s, once the standard in cowboy hats, are no longer made by Stetson.  Since the 70’s they have been made by a company called “Hatco”.  Really, “Hatco”.  For creativity in naming, this is right up there with “Petco”, and the firm that manufactures those high quality weed whackers, “Whacko”.
Buster Keaton used to make his own porkpie hats.  In a major Hollywood scandal in the 1920’s Keaton, whom many suspected of being Jewish, was accused of making them out of real pork.
A size 8-¼ hat in the U.S is a size 9 in France, proving once again, as if we didn’t know, that Frenchmen are fatheads.  So stick that in your ‘je ne sais quois’ and smoke it.